The presidential election in Ukraine on October 31 is the most important political event of the year in Europe. The former Soviet republic, a large European country of 50 million people, is poised between east and west. Analysts say the presidential election will tilt it one way or the other.
Several candidates are vying for the office of president, but two are leading in the race: current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who is backed by Russia and the Orthodox church; and former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, generally seen as more democratic and pro-western.
Roman Szporluk, professor of history at the Harvard University, says this may be the most important election in the history of independent Ukraine. "Ukraine is now - in choosing between these two leaders - going to make a fateful decision: whether it wants to continue, or maintain, or move in the democratic, pro-western direction or whether it will elect a leader who will move in a Eurasian direction, represented by (Russian President) Putin or (Kazakh President) Azarbayev or (Belarus President) Lukashenka," says Professor Szporluk.
The good news, he says, is that President Leonid Kuchma, formerly a Soviet engineering industry leader, decided not to run for a third term. His administration has been marked by corruption, slow economic reform and growing political suppression. The most serious accusations link him to the 2000 murder of an opposition journalist and most recently a rather mysterious poisoning of the leading opposition candidate, former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko.
Critics say this kind of intimidation has had some effect. Far behind in the polls at the beginning of the campaign, Mr. Kuchma’s Prime Minister Yanukovych has now pulled even. His supporters say this is due to the current Ukrainian economic growth, which at 13% this year is the highest in Europe. Mr. Yanukovych has also increased pensions twofold. He has promised to make Russian a state language and allow dual Russian-Ukrainian citizenship. All of this may appeal to the nation’s 17% ethnic Russians, though not to voters who fear renewed domination by Moscow.
Professor Szporluk says such fear is justified. "President Putin is determined to restore some sort of Russian empire, whether it is going to be called a Common European Space, or Eurasian Confederation or some kind of upgraded Commonwealth of Independent States, which now exists, but still in some sense is not a very real entity," says Professor Szporluk. "He definitely wants Russia to become the core, the leader of a new constellation of states."
In fact, President Putin arrived in Ukraine a few days before the election and addressed the nation on state television. His visit coincided with the 60th anniversary of Ukraine’s liberation from the Nazis in World War II, but opposition supporters saw it as a blatant gesture of support for Prime Minister Yanukovich. Menawhile, opposition candidate Yushchenko has very limited access to the media. Despite government moves to prevent voter rallies, more than 50,000 Ukrainians gathered in Kiev to protest Russian interference as well as growing government intimidation of the opposition.
Alexander Motyl, author of the book Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine After Totalitarianism, says some of the government’s methods are reminiscent of Soviet style: "A number of political leaders from the opposition, from the democratic movement, in the last several years have died mysterious deaths, usually car accidents." Professor Motyl says if Ukrainian democratic forces are defeated, Western Europe will be more to blame than Russia: "The European Union has never in the last 14 years since Ukraine has been independent offered or even made a suggestion that it might be interested in accepting Ukraine as a member." Without the support of the European Union, says professor Motyl, the former Soviet republic was forced to build political and economic relations with its largest neighbor.
Still, that does not mean Ukraine will become Russia’s satellite. Anders Aslund of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who served as economic adviser to Ukraine during the 1990’s, points out that Russia’s heavy-handed effort to influence Ukrainian election may backfire. "You always lose when you intervene so heavily in another country’s election and even if Yanukovych would win, Russia would not benefit much from it," says Mr. Aslund.
The current prime minister may have been endorsed by Vladimir Putin as Mr. Kuchma's "consistent successor", says Mr. Aslund, but he has actually reined in the most fervent proponents of integration with Russia. Whichever candidate wins, adds Mr. Aslund, the new generation of Ukrainians has grown up in relative freedom and will not give it up easily.